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Stocking Up for the Blizzard

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Wessex Rd., Silver Spring, Md., on January 24.

It’s rare that I feel lucky to have Michigan’s weather in the winter, but this past weekend was one of those moments, as we Michiganders watched the coverage of snow piling up on the East Coast, from Asheville, N.C., up through New York City. And scattered through the coverage was advice about stocking up on foodstuffs before the storm.

In some cases, I think people were actually talking about foodstuffs in the historical or technical sense of the term. In other cases, they were pretty clearly talking about food.

Foodstuff, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) online, refers to “a substance that can be used or prepared for use as food.” Merriam-Webster puts it this way: “the raw material of food before or after processing.”

So if one is buying flour, meat, fruits and vegetables, eggs, and milk, one is buying foodstuffs. But if one is buying cereal, bread, soup, ice cream, and frozen pizza, one is, arguably, buying food.

I added “arguably” in the previous sentence because I want to leave open the possibility that foodstuffs is broadening its meaning in common usage to include a range of food products. And if foodstuffs is undergoing semantic change, it is doing so largely under the radar right now, from what I can tell. No one has yet complained to me about the use of foodstuffs for food being a terrible redundancy in the language — compared with, for example, the way a friend went grammando on the word signage the other day, arguing that it served no useful purpose when we already have the word signs. (For the record, not everyone would agree with my friend on the uselessness of signage.)

The astute readers of Lingua Franca will have noticed that in the paragraph above, I used the plural form foodstuffs to talk about the word that may be undergoing semantic change, and that was intentional. The plural form is significantly more common than the singular (e.g., the ratio is 8:1 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English), and it has been more common pretty much since the word foodstuff showed up in English in the mid-19th century (see the graph from the Google Books Ngram Viewer below). When we’re stocking up for blizzards, it’s foodstuffs, not foodstuff, we’re after.

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That said, the singular foodstuff doesn’t seem to be immune from semantic expansion.* The most recent quotation in the revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Ryan Nerz’s 2006 book Eat This Book: “Buffalo’s signature foodstuff, the buffalo wing.”

If you’re now feeling wary of foodstuffs, you can always opt for groceries. And the definition of groceries in AHD reinforces the idea that there is something semantically afoot with foodstuffs: Groceries are, according to AHD, “commodities sold by a grocer,” and a grocer is a store “selling foodstuffs and various household supplies.”

Foodstuff for thought.

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*I promise to return to the question of immune to versus immune from in a future post.

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